‘West Side Story’ movie review — the beloved musical is more relevant than ever

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    Date:
    December 2, 2021
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    There’s a place for us. Somewhere, a place for us. 

    When news broke that Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner were remaking West Side Story, there was a bit of discussion around redoing a beloved film that many believe to be one of the best movie musicals ever made. Why mess with perfection?

    Well, the director and screenwriter have proved that the world needs this story now, and the vibrant, technicolor film courses with electricity and passion and doesn’t let up for two and a half hours. The acting? Phenomenal. The music? Peerless. The dancing? Unparalleled. There is definitely a place for both films.

    For the same reason we revive musicals on stage, remaking an iconic movie and musical brings the timeless story to a new generation and a new world. And here, Spielberg shines a light on how little things have really changed since 1961 when the Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins film came out. Appearances might change, but the things that divide us don’t. 

    In the wake of Stephen Sondheim’s death — he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music — the film seems to hold a greater weight. After all, the power of good art is its ability to last and remain relevant, as Sondheim’s work will undoubtedly do

    But that doesn’t mean there aren’t updates, many of which add a new lens to the material. For one, Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film, stars as Valentina, a reimagined version of the Doc character, who manages the drugstore where Tony works. Just having her onscreen (acting just as powerfully as she did back then) reminds us of the passage of time, but there are also new ways her character comes into play. 

    Many musical numbers and songs have new context, and choreographer Justin Peck reimagines the iconic Jerome Robbins moves in spectacular fashion. He’s helped by an impressive cast, featuring some of the best triple threats in the business. 

    Tony nominee Ariana DeBose is playing the role she was born to play as Anita. DeBose, an accomplished Broadway performer and rising film star, pays homage to Moreno’s performance while making the role entirely her own. She’s utterly magnetic. Her dance partner David Alvarez — who plays Maria’s brother and leader of the Sharks, Bernardo — is a bona fide movie star. The way he is simultaneously able to dance like a maniac (he’s a Tony winner for playing Billy Elliot on stage) and capture depth and nuance in quietude and gesture on screen is a masterclass. Here’s hoping this leads to a long and storied career on stage and screen for him. 

    Rachel Zegler is the picture perfect María, and she has an angelic glow, complemented by her soaring soprano. Ansel Elgort brings the necessary strapping, boy-next-door energy to Tony, which makes the climactic scene all the more disturbing. Mike Faist’s Riff, the leader of the Jets, has an impish energy, a child of the streets with nowhere to go, but Faist also demands sympathy for the character. This is a child who is just looking for belonging and love and instead turns to violence and a machismo mask.  

    Just like Aaron Burr, who sings in Hamilton, “The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me,” the Sharks and the Jets must learn the hard way that their “turf” can hold everyone as well. Hopefully the divisions that stain our streets and infiltrate our homes today can mend before it’s too late.

    There’s a place for us. Hold my hand, and I’ll take you there.